Town hall meeting: Let’s get teens working

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Teen unemployment was the major focus at a town hall meeting last week, with local teens and elected officials sharing the same platform.

Columbia Links, Columbia College’s journalism program for teens, sponsored the event, which featured a panel discussion and the release of Columbia Links’ spring 2011 R Wurd magazine that features a story titled “Not Hiring: The Plight of Jobless Teens.”

Recent census data shows the last two summers had the lowest teen employment rates since the end of World War II.

In Chicago alone, 54.9 percent of black teens were out of work, compared to 32.5 percent Hispanics and 30.9 percent whites, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report.

Laura Washington, a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and ABC 7 political analyst, moderated the panel discussion. Washington began the night by paralleling teen joblessness to Occupy Chicago.

“Many of those occupiers are young people who are really worried about our staggering economy, our desperate economy,” she said. “There’s frustration out there, even desperation in the air, particularly among the young.”

Philip Jackson, the president and founder of the Black Star Project, said he thinks a fundamental societal change will empower young people.

“There is no hope in doing things the exact same way we’ve been doing them for the past 20, 30, 40 years,” he said. “The violence in our communities is economic violence for the most part.”

Jackson said the solution has to be more than just a government decision: “The answers and solutions have got to be community-driven.

State Rep. La Shawn Ford, who represents Austin in the Illinois House, also participated in the panel discussion.

He said he believes legislators should take teen joblessness seriously.

“Everyone says that the youth is the future,” he said. “But if they’re really the future, then we should focus on ways to make sure that we include them in the workforce.”

As a young adult, Ford said he was lucky to have work.

“I was able to find jobs, thank goodness. When I was in college I was a teacher’s assistant, so I was fortunate enough to get a job and go to school during the evening,” he said.

Earlier this year, Ford sponsored legislation that would create a commission focused solely on increasing employment in state government for young adults ages 18 to 25.

Ashley Wright, an Austin resident who attends Westinghouse College Prep, said she’s been regularly handing out her resumes but consistently comes back empty-handed.

“I just went to three job interviews this month,” she said. “I went to Fridays, Chili’s and Mariano’s Fresh Market, and didn’t get called back from one.”

The 17-year-old said potential employers view her curfew and her school hours as hindrances to hiring her.

Out of all who spoke at the event, Wright said she found the words of a young lady her age the most inspiring.

“I liked Ashley Walker,” she said. “I liked her speech because she was speaking to us the real deal. She was speaking the truth. And I felt like what she was saying was true because we shouldn’t be focusing on money right now, we should be focusing on school.”

Walker, a Columbia Links student who had work published in Columbia Link’s R Wurd magazine, said earlier in the night, “school is a job and I’m not getting paid, but I am getting paid in the long run.”

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